Air travel can be a stressful and sometimes dangerous experience for pets, especially if they travel in the excess baggage or cargo holds. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which governs air travel for pets along with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), estimates that half a million dogs and cats travel on commercial airlines in the United States each year.
Of those, a reported 99 percent arrive at their destination without incident. However, that leaves approximately 5,000 airline mishaps a year -- enough to make any pet owner very cautious. The best way to ensure your pet's safety is to ask lots of questions and be sure to get answers that sound right to you before you proceed.
Each airline has its own guidelines for travel. Reconfirm your plans 24 to 48 hours before flight departure, especially during peak flying times. If possible, get written confirmation of your arrangements from the airline. Most airline Web sites have information regarding pet travel.
To travel by plane, your pet will need an airline-approved carrier and a health certificate, usually issued no more than 10 days before departure.
Who Should and Shouldn't Fly
Healthy animals over eight weeks old who have been issued a health certificate are legally allowed to fly. However, it is advisable to wait until they are 12 weeks old. If your pet is under the care of a veterinarian for an existing medical condition, you should consult your vet on the pros and cons of air travel. If your pet is pregnant, ill, or under 12 weeks old she should not fly, because the stress can cause serious complications.
Keep in mind that pug-nosed animals (such as bulldogs, pugs and Boston terriers and Himalayan and Persian cats) may have difficulty breathing at high altitudes because of their short nasal passages. You should also consider an alternative method of travel or consult your vet if your pet does not handle new and stressful situations well.
When to Fly
The best days to travel: Weekday flights are usually less hectic than weekend flights. Therefore, both you and your pet are more likely to receive attentive service during the week.
The best months to travel: If you must travel in the summer months, book flights only in the early morning or late evening when the temperatures are lowest. In the winter, midday flights are best because temperatures are usually higher than in the morning or evening. Remember, your pet may be waiting a bit to be loaded and unloaded from the plane. For health reasons (it's too hot) some airlines don't permit pets to travel as cargo between May 15 and September 15.
The best routes to travel: Direct and nonstop flights are the best. Avoid taking your pet on a flight with a stopover, especially flights that require passengers to change planes. These are the situations in which a mishap is most likely to occur because of scheduling changes or simple human error. If you are making a flight connection to a different airline, you will have to recheck your animal and pay another fee for excess baggage.
Temperature requirements: Most airlines use the following guidelines regarding temperatures in which animals may be flown: No less than 32°F and no more than 85°F.
The cost of flying your pet is determined by the individual airline and may be based on the size and weight of your animal as well as where and how (cabin, baggage, or cargo) it is to be flown. Most airlines charge about $75 per pet. If you do not have your own carrier some airlines sell them, but they're usually quite a bit more expensive than carriers from a pet-supply catalog or store.
Exercise, Tranquilizers, Feeding
Try to exercise your pet a bit before departure so he will be more likely to relax or even sleep.
Most vets do not recommend tranquilizers because they can have adverse effects at high altitudes and may make the animal less able to right himself if his carrier is mishandled. Also, tranquilizers can adversely affect your pet's body temperature-regulation process. It is best to discuss this matter with your vet, who will consider your pet's age and temperament as well as the duration of the flight before advising you on the use of tranquilizers.
In most cases it is advisable to avoid feeding your pet a large meal within two hours of departure time. It is usually best to feed dogs a small meal before you leave and then a larger meal upon arrival at your destination at the end of the day. Cats usually won't eat when they see you packing anyway, so when you get to your destination be sure to set up a quiet spot for your cat to eliminate and eat.
Pets in the Passenger Cabin
Some airlines permit animals to travel in the cabin as long as they are kept in their carriers and the carrier fits under the seat. Usually, no more than two pets are allowed in a cabin per flight, so make reservations well in advance and double check the airline's regulations. As a general rule, pets permitted to travel in the cabin may weigh no more than 20 pounds.
Most airlines charge between $80 and $100 one way for a pet in the cabin. When you arrive at the security gate, you will be required to remove your pet from its carrier and send the carrier through the X-ray machine. Be sure to have a collar or harness and leash attached to your pet. Most airlines have approved soft-sided carriers, such as the Sherpa bag, for cabin travel.
To avoid delays, be sure to have your pet's health certificate and boarding pass ready when you approach the security gate.
Flying Your Pet As Baggage or Cargo
To travel on your flight as excess baggage, the total weight of your pet and its carrier must not exceed 100 pounds in most cases. If the weight of the animal and carrier combined is greater than that, most airlines will only allow the pet to be shipped as cargo.
If the weight of your pet and its carrier exceeds the maximum weight allowed to fly as excess baggage, she may have to fly as cargo. Airlines do not guarantee that a pet flying as cargo will be on the same flight as you. Pricing also changes: it will be based on the weight and/or the measurements of the kennel. Flying as cargo is one of the most hazardous ways to transport your pet. If this is your only option, you must be even more careful to question the airline on every aspect of your pet's journey.
The check-in process can take a bit of time, so get to the airport at least 2-3 hours before flight time.
Have all your paperwork ready and be friendly to everyone at the airline: remember, they will be taking care of your pet. Bring a health certificate that was issued no more than 10 days before the flight.
Bring a carrier that is airline-approved and properly fitted to your pet. Approved crates will be marked as such, and appropriately sized crates should be big enough for your pet to stand up, turn around and lie down in with ease.
If the carrier is too large, your animal could be hurt because too much movement means he is more likely to be banged around. The crate must be sturdy and well-ventilated and contain plastic food and water dishes (these usually come with the crate). Don't include toys because they increase they possibility of choking. A piece of your old clothes or a blanket or towel from home may help to relax your pet a bit.
Identify the carrier clearly so you can spot it from a distance. Tape a friendly note on the top of the crate with all relevant information regarding your pet. A sample might be: "Hi, my name is Frisky. I am a 7-year-old Labrador retriever. I am going to St. Paul, MN, on Flight 5203. This is my first flight, so I am a little nervous. Thank you for taking good care of me."
After you check your pet in, go to your gate and watch to make sure your pet is safely loaded (a brightly marked carrier will make it easy to spot your animal). If possible ask one of the airline employees to reconfirm with baggage personnel that your pet is aboard.
If you must change planes at a stopover, check with airline personnel again to make sure your pet has made the connection. If there will be a long delay in the second flight departure, claim your pet, take him for a quick walk, etc. and then reboard him. After arrival your pet will be delivered to the baggage-claim area.